Violent Domestic Extremist Groups and the Recruitment of Veterans: Testimony by Oren Segal

October 13, 2021

Remarks by Oren Segal,
Vice President, ADL Center on Extremism
as delivered -- (Full written testimony here)

To the U.S. House of Representatives
House Committee on Veteran Affairs
Washington, DC | Oct. 13, 2021

Chairman Takano, Ranking Member Bost, Members of the Committee:

On behalf of the Anti-Defamation League - ADL - I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the landscape of domestic extremism and related efforts to recruit and attract veterans.

Domestic violent extremism impacts the safety and security of all Americans but understanding the specific dangers it poses to our democratic institutions is a key to mitigating the threat.

While extremist movements pose many problems to society - from spreading hate and intolerance to engaging in deadly violence - it is also concerning when adherents of extreme causes target the institutions dedicated to protecting the people of the United States.

It is not lost on the American public that of the 600 plus individuals arrested for their role in the January 6 insurrection, over 50 were veterans. Or that we have seen veterans become leaders of extremist groups, train extremists and even engage in extremist violence.

We continue to observe and document how extremist groups and movements seek to target veterans for recruitment. How and why they do that depends in part on the ideology. The nature of potential indicators varies from movement to movement and sometimes within a movement.

We have seen a range of white supremacist groups express interest in adding veterans to their ranks because of their military skills and training, including violent paramilitary white supremacist groups like The Base and Atomwaffen, whose members participate in training camps to refine their survivalist tactics in preparation for a perceived impending race war.

The membership application for The Base explicitly targets those with “military experience.” And in February 2019, the group’s founder and leader tweeted: “Why do we ask applicants about military experience? The Base is a survivalism & self-defense network—Two skills that are acquired through military training.”

As mentioned earlier, members of the antigovernment extremist Oath Keepers focus on recruiting military, as well as police, by exploiting their career-related oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution.

One of the militia’s main areas of focus is firearms and military-style training. They recruit former military because they hope they have a range of skills and expertise in subjects such as survival, firearms, reconnaissance, and hand-to-hand combat. These skills can be used to train other members.

There are also the Proud Boys, who present themselves a pseudo-paramilitary group and consistently engage in violent confrontations around the country. They include members who are veterans - some who hold leadership positions.  

We also know that violence is not the sole domain of any one extremist movement and is an issue across the ideological spectrum. Some left-wing extremist efforts to push back against those they oppose have, at times, served to normalize violence. But we also know that 75 percent of extremist related murders in the U.S. over the past ten years, have been carried out by right wing extremists.

We are seeing how extremists use the language of patriotism to further their reach, wrapping their agendas in the stars and stripes. And this language finds voice on a variety of social media and online platforms, providing a fertile environment for the hate, conspiracies and disinformation to proliferate in so called “Patriot” groups and other spaces that animate real world activity.

To mitigate the threat of extremism, we must understand efforts to recruit our veterans - as well as our military and law enforcement – not just because of the erosion of trust that it creates, but because they have an outsized negative impact on the safety of our communities.

We must also pay attention to the changing landscape of extremism. Whether it's harassment and threats against our school boards, election officials or health care workers, the front line against extremist activity and action is local. It’s close to home, trying to creep into our institutions, eager to pray upon our heroes and our vulnerable.

The issue of extremism in the veteran community is complex, and in closing, I urge this Committee to consider how the Department of Veterans Affairs and related agencies can become better informed on the threat of extremists’ attempts to recruit our nation’s veterans, to help veterans in transition become more aware of those risks and consider how we can help bolster veterans’ resilience in the face of attempted recruitment and radicalization.

As we explore what can work, what has worked, and what is needed – we can better prepare America’s veterans to reject extremists’ efforts to conscript them into the cause of hate and violence.

Thank you for your time.

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